“Rosmersholm” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself. 

All quoted passages from “Rosmersholm” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen


Rosmersholm was not the title Ibsen initially had in mind. He had considered calling it White Horses, referring to a recurrent image in the play of the mythical white horses that are said to be seen on the Rosmer estate before disaster strikes, but he eventually decided against it, possibly to avoid giving this admittedly striking piece of imagery too central a prominence in the work. Ghosts would have been a good title  as well – or, rather, the more evocative  Norwegian  title, Gengangere “something that or someone who walks again” – but that title had already been used in a previous play. Central to this play too is the burden of the past, the past that will not let us be, even when we have left it behind, even when we have outgrown it.

Ibsen eventually titled the play Rosmersholm – the House of Rosmer. For the great House of Rosmer, with its immense history, with the traditions and values it continues to represent (irrespective of Rosmer’s  own apostasy), plays in this drama a central  role. It is an austere, and gloomy house: there is not much room  here for human feelings. As Mrs Helseth, the old housekeeper of the House of Rosmer tells Rebecca:

Little children don’t cry in this house, not as long as anyone can remember … But it’s part of the  Rosmers. And  there’s another strange thing. When they grow up, they never laugh. Never laugh until the day they die.

Tears and laughter, those feelings and emotions that seem almost to represent what it means to be alive, to be human, have no part in the bleak House of Rosmer. But it is nonetheless a noble house. Rebecca West, who had initially entered the house as an outsider, can testify to its ability to ennoble:

REBECCA: It’s the Rosmer view of life – or yours, anyway. It has infected my will.

ROSMER: Infected – ?

REBECCA: And poisoned it. Enslaved it to a law which I had not previously recognised. You – being with you – has ennobled my soul –

ROSMER: Oh, if only I could believe that!

REBECCA: You can believe it all right. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. But – (Shakes her head) – but – but –

ROSMER: But – ? Well?

REBECCA: But it kills happiness, John.

Presumably translator Michael Meyer has translated whatever was in the original text as “happiness” rather than joy so as to avoid unwanted echoes of the English word “killjoy”, but this theme of the destruction of joy,  or of happiness, has appeared before: in Ghosts, the destruction of livsglad, a compound word meaning Joy in Life, is a major theme. Osvald speaks of it often, and his father, the deceased Captain Alving, was possessed with this livsglad. But, as his widow, Mrs Alving, who has no reason to feel sympathetic towards her dead husband, acknowledges, this livsglad had been killed in him. She had not shared in this Joy: her insistence had been merely on a cold, loveless sense of duty. Her husband had no outlet for this Joy, and over time, this Joy had become corrupted merely into empty hedonism. In that same play, Pastor Manders had asked:

What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam!

( from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik)

Osvald too, returning home from Paris, comments that he never sensed back home that Joy he had found elsewhere. The cold insistence on moral duty had killed it all. And here too, in the House of Rosmer, Joy has been killed. But we are given a further twist: what has killed Joy is not a cold and  loveless sense of duty: rather,  it is something that even Rebecca West admits is ennobling. But whatever it is, no matter how ennobling it is, it kills happiness.

The concept of nobility is explicitly placed here as something that is the opposite of happiness. Earlier in the play, John Rosmer had spoken of “ennobling” the people, although what precisely he had meant by this, and how precisely he is to achieve this, he does not say. Brand, too, had sought to ennoble humanity: he had enjoined humanity to take the Truth into their hearts, and to sacrifice all, their own selves if necessary, in  pursuit of this Truth, without even thinking of earthly happiness. And Pastor Manders in Ghosts, though a very different person from Brand in every way imaginable, was also a man of God, and he too had insisted that people do their duty, regardless of human happiness; for mortals, he insisted, had no right to expect “happiness”. This insistence of Truth, this desire to “ennoble” humanity, we had seen also in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, and in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck, but, unlike Brand or Pastor Manders, neither Stockmann nor Werle are religious: they do not even mention God. Brand and Pastor Manders had insisted that humans ennoble themselves by doing their duty, because this is God’s will; but Stockmann and Werle pursue Truth for its own sake. When the people turn against Stockmann, he could have argued against them in purely empirical terms: he could have denounced them for short-sightedness, for failing to see that seeing to their immediate welfare is to bring upon themselves far greater problems in the longer run. But he does not make that argument: he turns against the people because they do not have any sort of commitment to the Truth. And Gregers Werle too believes in Truth for its own sake; he believes that humans already are essentially noble, and that they must accept the Truth for its own sake because that, and that alone, could make such noble creatures happy. He believes this because he has to believe this: if it were not true, then, as he says at the end, life itself wouldn’t be worth living. Stockmann and Werle may not be religious – at least, neither mentions God – but their morality is not really too far from Brand’s: for them, Truth must be pursued, though not necessarily because God wills it (as Brand had believed) – but rather,  for its own sake.

When Rosmersholm was written (it was published in 1886), the intellectual temperature was changing. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, religious belief was no longer a default position. That is not to say that religious belief was not possible, but, rather, it could not be taken as a given: whatever grounds there may be still to believe, belief was no longer something that was dictated by reason. Only four years before the publication of Rosmersholm, Nietzsche had famously declared (in The Gay Science) that “God was dead”. And in this state, one could no longer justify anything, not even life, by invoking an overriding divine purpose. Whatever values we choose to live by, whatever we choose to pursue, we cannot ascribe to any divine purpose, since the existence of God himself is no longer a given. So what, then, forms nobility? How then do we ennoble humanity, ennoble ourselves?

John Rosmer is, very explicitly, a man who had once believed, who had once, indeed, been a Man of God, a pastor, but who has now lost his faith. He is the last in the line of the House of Rosmer, and the immense burden of the past weighs heavily on him. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. Rosmer himself may have lost his faith in God, but retains still his faith in that which ennobles: duty, integrity – the  Truth. As with Stockmann and Werle, he believes in Truth for its own sake, and he believes, as Brand had done, that humans can be ennobled if they could but grasp the Truth, and hold it dear. But unlike Brand, he cannot justify Truth with an overriding divine purpose: he no longer believes. It is merely an abstract concept, existing for its own sake. But he is nonetheless a Rosmer, of the House of Rosmer, and though he has rejected religion, he cannot reject the concept of Truth as something ennobling.

But when it comes to human happiness, Truth is neutral: Truth may “ennoble” – whatever we may mean by that – but it does not care one way or the other for human happiness. We may still hold on to it as a concept, and value it for what it is, but it is possible that what we value is no more than a ghost of the past, one of those Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”. For if there is no divine will we may appeal to, if there is no God himself, then it is hard to see what there can be more valuable than human happiness here on earth; and if Truth itself is indifferent to the very concept of human happiness, why then why should we value it?

Now, Ibsen is not saying that we shouldn’t value Truth: Dr Relling, in The Wild Duck, says this, but Dr Relling is not Ibsen. Ibsen does, however, pose some very uncomfortable questions. If we no longer believe, if we can no longer appeal to an overriding divine purpose or to an overriding divine will, then we can take nothing for granted; then we must create our own values, and they must be human values, justified purely in human terms. Possibly this is what Ivan Karamazov meant when he spoke those enigmatic words “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted”. This does not necessarily mean that the non-existence of God obviates moral values, although that is certainly a possible interpretation: more interestingly, it can mean that if God does not exist, we have nothing to guide us in creating our own values, and that we must, therefore, start from scratch. And if we do, we must question everything, even the value of Truth itself. If there can be no aim greater than that of earthly human welfare, and if Truth is indifferent to such an end, why then should we value Truth? Is it merely an emotional attachment on our part and nothing more? And here, when Rebecca West presents the Rosmer view of life as something that ennobles, but also as something that is opposed to human happiness, a deeply uncomfortable question seems to me implicit: what price nobility, what price Truth, if it makes us unhappy?

On top of this questioning of the value of Truth, in Rosmersholm, the very nature of Truth itself is questioned. Not whether there exists such a thing as objective Truth, but whether we are capable, even with the best of wills, of grasping what it is.

Such are the psychological complexities in which the principal characters of this drama are bound, the mind reels. Rebecca West and John Rosmer try to understand their past, try to understand what it has made of them, but little seems clear, and their behaviour, conditioned as it is by their psychological states, seems at times perverse. Ibsen here delves further into the inner complexities of the human mind than he had done in any of his earlier plays. Only four years earlier, in An Enemy of the People, he had presented a very public drama, with very public conflicts; in The Wild Duck, which followed, he moved towards the private sphere, presenting the depths of the mind, of the imagination, as the depth of the sea itself. Now, he moves further into the close intricacies of the human mind. Of course, there is a public life as well: the drama depicted here is very firmly set in the real world, and there is, we gather, much public conflict outside; but this conflict is, essentially, presented as noises off. We see a representative of the conservative camp – the overbearing and bullying Kroll; and we see a representative of the liberal camp, the sly and manipulative Mortensgaard, neither caring for the  Truth, nor bearing any mark of nobility. But the action of the play never leaves the House of Rosmer, and the focus is turned inward.

Sigmund Freud, famously, wrote at length on the character of Rebecca West in his 1914 essay “Character Types”. (The essay is quoted at length by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation, and Meyer refers to it as “by far the most penetrating analysis of the play”.) Among other things, Freud probes the question of why, precisely, Rebecca West refuses Rosmer’s proposal of marriage towards the end of Act Two. This, after all, is what she had been working towards; why, when it is within her grasp, does she turn away from it so fiercely? Whatever we may think of Freud’s answer to this question, it cannot be denied that it is a fundamental question to ask. Ibsen has placed it at exactly the half-way point of the play; the refusal, though obscure in terms of “why?”, is tremendously powerful and dramatic, and it brings down the curtain on the second act with the utmost force. Freud’s view was that Rebecca West was haunted by her fear of incest. As a younger woman, after her mother had died, she had become the mistress of step-father, Dr West. However, Dr West had most likely been, in reality, her biological father also: Rebecca’s mother had been his lover while her husband had still been alive. And when Rebecca later enters the Rosmer household, she comes into a parallel situation: she ends up displacing John Rosmer’s wife, Beata, to win John, in the same way that she had previously displaced her mother to win Dr West. But the guilt she feels for her previous incestuous relationship Dr West prevents her from taking the final step of this act of displacement.

This may or may not be so: I am no expert of Freudian psychology. It may be argued that when Rebecca refuses Rosmer, she does not know that Dr West was her biological father: she had no idea that Dr West and her mother had previously been lovers. However, against this, it may be argued that she may, at least, have had suspicions; and that, after the passing of her biological father, Dr West had certainly been her step-father, and, hence, a father figure. All this may be so. It is certainly true that the situation Rebecca finds herself in on entering Rosmersholm parallels the situation she had been in before. But there does seem to me a much simpler explanation: Rebecca feels guilt not because of incest, but because of Beata, the wife of John Rosmer, and the part she had played in Beata’s death.

As a liberated woman, Rebecca had not, at first, cared much about the niceties of convention, about the sanctity of marriage; but over time, as she says herself, the “Rosmer view of life” had “infected” her will. The words she uses here are significant: infected, poisoned, enslaved. She expresses exclusively in negative terms that which, by her own admission, has ennobled her. The nobility that is so defining a feature of the House of Rosmer had made her ill, had taken away her very freedom: no longer is she the liberated person she once had been. But she is ennobled., and can see clearly her own guilt. For, even when we reject religion, reject God, the consciousness of our guilt, and the awareness of our sinfulness, are less easy to throw off: these are Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”.

But what really did happen with Beata? The truth is difficult even to uncover, let alone embrace. To what extent is Rebecca responsible for Beata’s suicide, for Beata’s throwing herself into the millrace? Rebecca herself is not entirely sure. But the dead continue to live with us: in performance, we hear throughout the sound of the millrace from outside the house. Beata herself may be dead, but she remains throughout a powerful presence. And it strikes me as likely that it is Beata’s unseen presence, and Rebecca’s growing awareness of her own guilt and her willingness to accept moral responsibility, that is behind her refusal. At the very end of the play, Mrs Helseth sees John Rosmer and Rebecca West follow Beata, and throw themselves into the millrace – a sentence they pass upon themselves in  the absence of a God they can no longer believe in – and she says: “The dead mistress has taken them”. Amongst other things, Rosmersholm may be seen, I think, as a Gothic ghost story: the ghost of Beata is rarely too far away.

But what really had happened between John Rosmer, Beata Rosmer, and Rebecca West? One thing we can definitely rule out is that Rosmer and Rebecca had been having an affair. They both make quite clear, even when alone together, that their relationship had been entirely chaste. Indeed, John Rosmer appears throughout a sort of sexless being, or, at least, as an asexual being. That he can be living under the same roof as the young and attractive Rebecca, and never even be tempted by desire, seems to indicate a man with a very low, virtually non-existent, sexual drive. (Neither is there any indication, incidentally, of homosexuality on Rosmer’s part, latent or otherwise.)  Perhaps this is in keeping with the cold, passionless ethos of the House of Rosmer, where children do not cry and adults do not laugh. If this is so, we may ask ourselves what had attracted Rebecca to Rosmer in  the first place, and here, I must confess that I am not at all sure: the fact that Rosmer was a man from a noble family (on all senses of  the word “noble”), and belonging to an old and respected family, and owner of the great Rosmersholm, the House of Rosmer, may in itself had been a sort of aphrodisiac. But more important, I think, is that Rosmer is a genuinely good man. He is, as Edmund says of Edgar in King Lear, a man “whose nature is so far from doing harms, that he suspects none”: he cannot see how pompous and malicious Kroll is, or how untrustworthy and conniving Mortensgaard is; and it never even occurs to him that living under the same roof as Rebecca West may give rise to gossip. He has rejected his faith, but his moral integrity, his determination to do right, to value Truth, are important aspects of his character: these, after all, are the values of Rosmersholm itself. Rebecca herself would possibly be at a loss to explain what it was that had attracted her to Rosmer, but the fact that he was in all respects a good man is, I think, far from a minor consideration.

And then, there is the question of John’s marriage with Beata: what exactly had that been like? We can only piece it together from the very unreliable memories the participants of this drama have about her. He are given to understand that she had been mentally ill, especially towards the end: it seems likely she had been suffering from what we would now call depression. And that the depression had been brought on by, or, perhaps, exacerbated by, the knowledge that she couldn’t have children – although whether this was due to her own medical condition or to her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her remains unclear. At any rate, she had been a deeply unhappy person, imbued with a profound sense of her own inadequacy, and  her unworthiness to be the wife of John  Rosmer. And Rebecca had played upon this. She had given Beata to understand that she and Rosmer were indeed lovers, and that it was she, Rebecca, and not Beata, who should rightfully be Rosmer’s wife. Not that she had done this openly, or even deliberately: it was not something calculated, and, as she looks back, she cannot quite understand to what extent she really had been  responsible:

REBECCA (vehemently): But do you think I did all  this calculatedly, and in cold blood? No – I was different then from what I am now – standing here and talking about it. And besides – I think a person can have two wills. I wanted to be rid of Beata. Somehow or other. But I never thought it would happen. Every step that I ventured forward, I felt as though a voice cried within me: “No further! Not an inch further!” But I couldn’t stop! I had to venture another inch. Just one. And then another – just one more. And then it happened. That’s how such things do happen.

And, as Rosmer realises, if Rebecca is guilty, he is guilty too. At two strategic points in the play, in the first and final acts, the reprehensible old layabout, Ulrik Brendel, enters the scene. He had previously been John Rosmer’s tutor, and  Rosmer possibly realises that this faded old idealist, now taking refuge in bluster and in alcohol, is a sort of grotesque mirror image of himself. He too, like Rosmer, had set out to “ennoble” humanity; but whatever nobility he himself once may have had has long since disappeared. And he knows it. How can he, pathetic and absurd as he is, have anything to offer?

BRENDEL: Faewell,  Johannes! Forward to victory!

ROSMER: Are you going now? It’s a dark night.

BRENDEL: Night and darkness are best. Peace be with you. [He leaves]

                [There is a moment’s silence in the room.]

REBECCA (takes a deep breath): Oh, how close and suffocating it is here!

Rebecca and John can both see in Brendel an image of John Rosmer himself; and Rosmer, being honest, must face up to what he really is, and to the guilt in which he is embroiled. He can no longer believe in a God to punish him, but he still believes in sin and in atonement: he must punish himself.  Night and darkness are best, after all.

I, who was to carry my cause to victory – ! And now I have fled the field, before the battle has even begun.

And as for Rebecca, she is suffocating. The only way out for both of them is to go the way Beata had done.

But it is not the case – as I have seen in some analyses of this play –  that John Rosmer decides to atone for his guilt by committing suicide, and Rebecca decides to join him. It is, if anything, the other way round. It is John Rosmer, with the monstrous egotism typical of idealists who expect others to share their ideals, who asks whether Rebecca will have the courage:

ROSMER: Have you the courage – and the will – with a glad heart, as Ulrik Brendel said – for my sake,  now, tonight – freely and willingly – to go the  way that Beata went? … Yes, Rebecca. This is the question I shall never be able to escape from – after you are gone. Every hour of the day it will haunt me.

Rosmer means that this question will haunt him after Rebecca has left Rosmersholm: would she, who is guilty of so much for his sake, and in whose guilt he bears so a great part, prove to him the depths not only of her love, but also of her awareness of her guilt? It is a monstrously egotistical thing to ask for. But Rebecca agrees. And only then does Rosmer decide to accompany her.

For now, we two are one.

And there follows the double suicide, the ultimate union in death, the liebestod – but a liebestod entirely chaste, and free of sexuality. The liberated woman who had sought to subdue the world itself to her will, but whose will now has dissipated; and the man of integrity who had sought to ennoble humanity, but who find himself embroiled in such guilt that, in absence of a God, he must himself punish, perish together. Night and darkness are best.


I have long delayed writing this post because, despite many years’ acquaintance with this play, I am not sure I understand it, or that I will ever understand it. Reading over what I have written, I fear much of it may appear pretentious: I have touched on elements of philosophy and psychology that I am distinctly unqualified to comment upon. However, this is a work that continues to fascinate me, and I don’t think it is possible to describe how I react to this without touching on these matters. For this is all this is: not an analysis, by any means, but simply a record of how I, personally, react to this play – of what it means to me.  I think it is among the most hypnotically captivating of all works of literature that I have encountered. The dramatist still reckoned essentially to be a social critic, a dramatist of social change, peers here into some of the most obscure and secret compartments of the human mind, into some of the deepest of human concerns, and, inevitably, the play that emerges is difficult, and endlessly intricate. I doubt I will ever come to a definitive view of a work so complex and so profound. Great though Ibsen’s previous plays in this cycle had been, it does seem to me that with Rosmersholm, he moves on to a new level entirely.

38 responses to this post.

  1. Half-way though reading your post, I feel Ibsen would sympathise with this:

    “People settle for a level of despair they can tolerate and call it happiness.”
    ― Søren Kierkegaard


    • Indeed – if everything is up for questioning, then what we mean by “happiness” needs to be questioned as well. And it may well be that there is a kind of happiness, a “true happiness” if you will, that is different from earthly comfort and contentment, and which may even disrupt or destroy earthly contentment and comfort. But if so, this needs to be defined, and argued: merely asserting it is not, I think, sufficient.


  2. Posted by alan on November 8, 2018 at 12:50 am

    All the best aphorisms are meaningless.


  3. Posted by alan on November 8, 2018 at 1:15 am

    Your post has got me thinking now about the way people use the word joy compared to the way they use the word happiness.
    One has joy, one is happy. One has happiness, one is joyful.
    Why is the single syllable word joy not used much compared to the three syllable happiness?
    I can almost hear the soap opera complaint “you don’t make me happy” but I have no recollection of having seen or heard the sentence “you don’t give me joy” or “you don’t make me joyful”. The word joy feels in some sense archaic or to be used to express a feeling that comes unbidden and can’t be manufactured. I’ve deliberately not looked this up.
    There’s a William Blake poem “Infant Joy” that starts:

    I have no name
    I am but two days old.—
    What shall I call thee?
    I happy am
    Joy is my name,—
    Sweet joy befall thee!

    and that only serves to underline it as being a less intended feeling, in my mind at least.


    • I think “happiness” is generally used to suggest something close to “contentment”, while “joy” is used to suggest something close to “ecstasy”. “Happiness” is everyday, “joy” is exceptional. I think that’s how I’d see it, at any rate.


  4. Your appraisal of the play has inspired me to reread.

    I observe in the opening pages that the behaviour of Rebecca West towards Beata is deemed beyond reproach.

    I am aware that the Biblical Rebecca supplanted the rightful suitor, sister Leah, for the hand of patriarch Jacob. “Beata” is Latin for “blessed”. “Rosmer” alludes to a Norwegian legend of a merman who lures a young woman to her death by drowning.


    • Thank you for that. Of course, to judge from our previous discussions on Ibsen, we have very different perspectives on these plays, but it is a mark of the complexity of these works that they can allow for such divergent viewpoints.


  5. From ACT 1 of “Rosmerholm”, it is clear what Kroll calls “the spirit of revolt and dissension” is wide spread with “every single idea is turned upside down”. Tutor Ulrik Brendel and ex schoolmaster Mortensgaard are early adherents of what they see as the “spirit of the age”, a spirit of emancipation and reconciliation.

    Brendel’s proposed self-sacrifice foreshadows the play’s ending (and Beata’s):

    BRENDEL__ …Besides, why
    should I profane my own ideals when I could enjoy them, in all their
    purity, by myself? But now they shall be sacrificed. Honestly, I feel
    as a mother must do when she entrusts her young daughter to the arms of
    a husband. But I am going to, sacrifice them nevertheless – sacrifice
    them on the altar of emancipation. A series of carefully thought-out
    lectures, to be delivered all over the country!

    REBECCA (impetuously)__ That is splendid of you, Mr. Brendel! You are
    giving up the most precious thing you possess.

    ROSMER__ The only thing.

    REBECCA (looking meaningly at ROSMER)__ I wonder how many there are who
    would do as much–who dare do it?

    ROSMER (returning her look)__ Who knows?

    And here is a motive for blessed Beata’s daring self-sacrifice – in tune with “the spirit of the age”:

    ROSMER__ I am not so entirely alone, even now. There are two of us to
    bear the solitude together here.

    KROLL__ Ah! (A suspicion appears to cross his mind.) That too! Beata’s


  6. Here’s why I adore Ibsen. Despite reading Act 1 a decade ago, I again overlooked a crucial foreshadowing of the play’s ending.

    Kroll__ Then let me tell you that the revolt and dissension has spread
    into my own home–into my own peaceful home–and has disturbed the
    peace of my family life.

    Did you, Himadri, connect Kroll’s confession of his family’s contamination by the spirit of the age with his married sister, Beata? Here is surely a motive for her suffering and suicide: Beata lived what others did little more than preach!


    • Beats dies before the action of this play begins, and not at the end of the play. If Kroll’s line refers to Beata’s death, it cannot be a “foreshadowing of the play’s ending”.


      • Unbeknown to Kroll, Beata has imbibed “emancipated ideas” through the influence of his own family. Beata had the courage to live and end her life in her own way, the way of Rosmer and Rebbecca ultimately choose to follow”.

        Rebecca__ Because then I shall go the way Beata went. Now you know, John.

        and much later,

        Rosmer__ It was for love of me–in her own way that–she threw herself
        into the mill-race. That fact is certain, Rebecca. I can never get
        beyond that.


        Rosmer__ Have you the courage–are you willing–gladly, as Ulrik Brendel
        said–for my sake, to-night–gladly–to go the same way–that Beata

      • In this play, we see the characters trying to understand why Beata had killed herself. They try to piece it together from their fragmented memories, and from their subjective understanding of the past. It appears (we can er be sue) that Beata had been mentally ill, and had suffered from what we’d now call “depression”. This state of mind was exacerbated by Rebecca’s suggestions of Beata’s superfluity. She Coe the guilt that both Rebecca and John find themselves embroiled in.

        Kroll speaks of his own family taking up liberal positions, but there’s no indication in the text that Kroll’s family had influenced Beata also to take a liberal stance, and that, further, this had contributed to her motives for suicide.

      • Rather than mental illness, a liberated Beata saw herself standing in the way of Rosmer’s happiness: hence her distress. Clearly Rosmer and Rebecca are blameless by any reasonable moral standard (Lutheran morality is another matter).

        Assuming Rebecca’s liberal ideas did not come from them, her evangelising family is the obvious source. Why else does Ibsen have Kroll reveal his family’s zealotry?

        As for impacts later in the play, I have only just finished Act 2, on which I will shortly post.

      • Rebecca encourages Beata’s sense of her own inadequacy, and helps drive her to suicide. This is guilt by any standards, and not just Lutheran. The entire action of the play turns on this intense sense of guilt.

  7. From ACT 2 of “Rosmerholm”, a firm foundation is given for the difficult Act 3 that follows.

    A year and a half after Beata’s suicide, Rosmer and Rebecca feel secure and happy. Their consciences remain clear. Distressed by her barrenness, the unhappy sick woman—with her ungovernable, wild fits of passion—had descended into madness and suicide. But Beata had never been wronged in any way. Neither Rosmer nor Rebecca were were so imprudent as to let the poor sick creature get wind of the new liberal ideas (including Rosmer’s apostasy). Early in Act 3, we will learn from Mrs Helseth that “wicked” Mrs Kroll is the likely source of liberal ideas. Everyone vouches for Rosmer and Rebecca.

    Notwithstanding Kroll’s opinion, Rosmer had been happily married to Beata despite her mental illness. Kroll’s allegation of free love is groundless: a man and a woman have been living together in chastity. Rosmer says, “On personal grounds, Mr. Mortensgaard, I feel myself to be invulnerable. My conduct does not offer any point of attack.” And to Rebecca, “You and I know that we have nothing to reproach ourselves with.”

    A full year-and-a-half after Beata’s suicide, the world of Rosmer and Rebeca is up-ended by revelations regarding Beata’s last days from Kroll, Mortensgaard and Mrs. Helseth. Beata apparently put an end to her own life in order that Rosmer’s might be happy—and that he might be free to live as he pleased. Two days before her suicide, Beata tells Kroll, “I have not much time left; for John must marry Rebecca immediately now.”

    Importantly, Kroll, Mortensgaard and Mrs. Helseth all doubt Beata’s madness. What if Beata was wholly sane, feigning madness for the sake of Rosmer and Rebecca. After all, only they had been fully deceived! As Rosmer says to Rebecca, “It seems just as if Beata had come to life again in some uncanny fashion,” (a Gengangere). What if Beata’s suicide expressed “full freedom of action” stemming from an emancipated awareness, arising from new liberal ideas?

    Beginning to doubt Beata’s madness, Rosmer asks Rebecca, “What I mean is—where are we to look for the actual cause of her sick woman’s fancies turning into insanity?”
    Mortensgaard says to Rosmer , “I have [Beata’s] letter at home. It begins more or less to the effect that she is living in perpetual terror and dread, because of the fact that there are so many evilly disposed people about her whose only desire is to do you harm and mischief…she has no knowledge of any sinful relations existing at Rosmersholm; that she has never been wronged in any way.”

    But Rosmer’s “calm and happy innocence” is at an end. He proposes to Rebecca and is rejected, reinforcing our view of Rebecca’s integrity.

    Two interesting questions now arise. How on earth did Beata come to suspect Rosmer’s orthodoxy? And is Rosmer right about Beata misconstruing when he says, “To think that here she was—with her affection all distorted by illness—never saying a word—watching us—noticing everything and—and—misconstruing everything”?


    • “A year and a half after Beata’s suicide, Rosmer and Rebecca feel secure and happy. Their consciences remain clear. Distressed by her barrenness, the unhappy sick woman—with her ungovernable, wild fits of passion—had descended into madness and suicide. But Beata had never been wronged in any way.”

      As I have tried to explain at some length above, this is not my reading.


      • Not your reading!

        My last post is merely a chronological account of more interesting happenings in Act 2 of Rosmersholm, certainly not of subsequent acts or of the play as a whole. There is copious evidence, in Acts 1 and 2 for almost all of my post. What occurs thereafter I have yet to consider.

      • Your post was more than merely a “chronological account”, it was also a commentary (such as the line I quoted). Which is fine, but I just wanted to point out that your commentary does not correspond with my own reading.

      • Which part of my quoted post do you consider commentary?

        Every clause in that quote is readily supportable by strong evidence from Act 2. (What happens after Act 2 is another matter.)

      • “A year and a half after Beata’s suicide, Rosmer and Rebecca feel secure and happy. Their consciences remain clear … But Beata had never been wronged in any way.”

        All of this is commentary.

        This is fine. I don’t mind you commenting here on the play. But let us be clear that this is your interpretation. It’s certainly not mine.

      • From Act 2, here is clear textual evidence for: “A year and a half after Beata’s suicide, Rosmer and Rebecca feel secure and happy. Their consciences remain clear … But Beata had never been wronged in any way.” Importantly, there is no evidence to the contrary in Act 2 unless you can show that an ignoble Rosmer is shamelessly lying.


        Rosmer (standing face to face with Kroll)___Listen to me. For considerably
        more than a year to be precise, since Beata’s death–Rebecca West and I
        have lived here alone at Rosmersholm.

        Mortensgaard [to Rosmer]___It was during the poor lady’s last days. It must be about a year and a half ago now. And that is the letter that is so remarkable.


        From late in Act 1:
        Rosmer___That does not matter, Rebecca. We shall be able to go through
        with it, for all that–we two trusty friends–you and I.
        Rebecca___What do you suppose he meant just now when [Kroll] said he was
        ashamed of himself?
        Rosmer___My dear girl, don’t bother your head about that. He didn’t even
        believe what he meant, himself. But I will go and see him tomorrow.
        Rebecca___Are you going up so early to-night–after this?
        Rosmer___As early to-night as I usually do. I feel such a sense of
        relief now that it is over. You see, my dear Rebecca, I am perfectly
        calm–so you take it calmly, too. Good-night.
        Rebecca___Good-night, dear friend–and sleep well!

        Early in Act 2.
        Rosmer [to Kroll]___I went to sleep feeling so secure and happy. I did not even dream.


        Rosmer___But, my dear Kroll, you surely do not suppose that we were so imprudent as to let the poor sick creature get wind of any such ideas? I can solemnly swear that we were in no way to blame.

        Rosmer [to Kroll]___Rosmer. Can you have any doubt? Or perhaps I should rather say, need one look for reasons for what an unhappy sick woman, who is
        unaccountable for her actions, may do?
        Kroll___Are you certain that Beata was so entirely unaccountable for her
        actions? The doctors, at all events, did not consider that so
        absolutely certain.
        Rosmer___If the doctors had ever seen her in the state in which I have
        so often seen her, both night and day, they would have had no doubt
        about it.
        Kroll___I did not doubt it either, at the time.
        Rosmer___Of course not. It was impossible to doubt it, unfortunately.

        Kroll___And free love, since you force me to say it.
        Rosmer (gently)___And you are not ashamed to say that to me!–you, who have known me ever since I was a boy.

        Kroll___Listen to me. As to what may have gone on here in secret while Beata was alive, and as to what may be still going on here, I have no wish to inquire more closely. You were, of course, extremely unhappy in your marriage–and to some extent that may be urged in your excuse–
        Rosmer___Oh, how little you really know me!

        Rosmer (standing face to face with him)___All that time you have known of
        the charge Beata made against us; but I have never for one moment seen
        you appear the least scandalised at our living together here.
        Kroll___I never knew, till yesterday evening, that it was a case of an
        apostate man and an “emancipated” woman living together.

        Rosmer___On personal grounds, Mr. Mortensgaard, I feel myself to be invulnerable. My conduct does not offer any point of attack.

        Rebecca___Why should we pay any heed to what all these other people
        think? You and I know that we have nothing to reproach ourselves with.
        Rosmer___I? Nothing to reproach myself with? It is true enough that I
        thought so until to-day. But now, now, Rebecca–


        (Incidentally, I now see that not on Kroll, Mortensgaard and Mrs. Helseth doubted Beata’s madness but also her doctors. No one told Rosmer or Rebecca, who apparently saw little of the saner Beata.

        I see another motive for devoted Beata’s suicide: only Rebecca can provide an heir for the long and noble line of Rosmers. Beata was barren for years and, tellingly, it was she who sought out Rebecca as a companion. This also is textual, not interpretation.)

      • To say that Rosmer thinks (at the start of the play) that Beata had not been wronged is, I agree, an impartial summary of the text. To say, as you do, that “Beata had never been wronged in any way” is your interpretation. And it is an interpretation I strongly disagree with. I also disagree strongly with your contention that Rebecca’s conscience is clear.

        But unless you have any specific point in my post you wish to challenge, I don’t know there’s much for me to say here.

      • Prior to the revelations of Kroll and Mortensgaard to Rosmer, 18-months after Beata’s suicide, nobody believed she had been wronged in any way whatsoever. Even Kroll admits as much. And prior to these revelations, the play gives no reason to doubt that the conscience of either Rebecca or Rosmer is clear. No interpretation here.

        These two revelations make all the difference, revelations only possible because Beata contacted Kroll and Mortensgaard for the express purpose of protecting her husband and, indirectly, Rebecca. Clearly, Beata expected these contacts to remain private and, for eighteen months, they remained so.

        An angry Kroll only dropped his revelation once Rosmer chose to disclose his apostasy and free thinking. And Mortensgaard, whom Rosmer had once sacked as schoolmaster, disclosed his once invited into Rosmerholm by Rebecca. The motives of Kroll and Mortensgaard are hardly pure.

        As for explicitly addressing your initial post I first intend, as I have said, to reacquaint myself with the play. I am currently looking at Act 3 whereas much of your post relates to the play as a whole.

      • ” And prior to these revelations, the play gives no reason to doubt that the conscience of either Rebecca or Rosmer is clear. No interpretation here.”

        No single part of the play can be considered in isolation from the rest . Many things happen in peoples’ minds that people don’t necessarily speak about – sometimes even to themselves. That Rebecca does not refer to her guilt (in this part of the play, at least) is not evidence that she is not guilty, or even that she considers herself free of guilt. That you think it does is very much your interpretation.

        Rosmersholm is an extremely complex play, and Rebecca West among the most psychologically complex of characters. Nothing is quite as it appears on the surface.

      • “That you think it does is very much your interpretation”? I think nothing of the sort.
        The play is meant to be read and performed chronologically, and I am only now beginning Act 3. Understanding happenings in Acts 1 and 2 is the only sound basis for understanding Acts 3 and 4.

        Textual evidence in Acts 1 and 2 implies Rebecca shares with Rosmer a “calm and happy innocence” that nobody disputes until a year and a half after Beata’s suicide. Indeed, Beata herself and brother Kroll so testify. Any valid interpretation of the play must deal directly with this implication.

        I look forward to what Act 3 may bring.

  8. You: “A year and a half after Beata’s suicide, Rosmer and Rebecca feel secure and happy. Their consciences remain clear … But Beata had never been wronged in any way.”

    Me: “That Rebecca does not refer to her guilt (in this part of the play, at least) is not evidence that she is not guilty, or even that she considers herself free of guilt. That you think it does is very much your interpretation.”

    You: “I think nothing of the sort.”

    I think it best if I were to drop out of this conversation now.


    • Posted by Joydeck on December 5, 2018 at 12:28 pm

      A clear conscience may well arise from – and be sustained by – ignorance, self-deception or carelessness, for instance. One’s conscience is far from an infallible guide.

      I make no judgement on the veracity of the conscience of either Rosmer or Rebecca but simply state what seems in Acts 1 and 2.


  9. Having reread Act 3, closer scrutiny of “the way Beata went” seems warranted. After all, “Rosmersholm” begins and ends with Beata’s way and increasingly abounds in allusions to her path to suicide, the mill-race and its wooden bridge. Several perspectives, less than reliable, are offered on Beata’s way and some evolve during the play.

    In__Act 1__
    Ominously, Rosmer avoids the wooden bridge alongside the mill race: avoids following Beata’s final footsteps. By contrast, Beata’s brother, Kroll, happily takes the wooden bridge shortcut and, despite his wife’s “wicked” suspicions, has nothing but praise for Rebecca and Rosmer, who now think of poor Beata in a “sweet and peaceful” way. Kroll’s equanimity reflects his dead sister’s guileless adoration of Rosmer and Rebecca.

    Liberal ideas abound—even in Kroll’s household—and the intuitive Beata would have been aware of them. We meet free-thinking Brendel who, like Rosmer, seeks to enoble the hearts of men. On learning of Rosmer’s apostasy and liberal leanings Kroll, in an about-face, starts to put the worst construction on his sister’s suicide. The Rosmersholm White Horses are restless.

    In __Act 2__
    A jaundiced Kroll informs Rosmer that Beata chose to end her life in order that his might be happy. On the eve of her suicide, she assurs her brother that “John must marry Rebecca immediately now.” It’s for the best. Apparently, Beata intuited empathy between Rosmer and Rebecca, Rosmer’s liberal leanings and—unlike Rebecca—that Rosmer was on the “high road to apostasy”. Some intuition in a mad woman!

    Kroll now sinks so low as to shares his wife’s suspicions of free-love at Rosmersholm. During Beata’s last days, in a lucid letter to a less-than-sympathetic Mortensgaard, she rightly asserts the chaste relationship between Rebecca and Rosmer but lies about Rosmer’s loss of faith. It seems Beata better understood Rosmer and Rebecca than they her because they, alone, were convinced of her madness. (Beata surely needed a veneer of sustained madness if her suicide was to bring them together.) Never did Beata utter an unkind word to or about Rosmer and Rebecca: indeed, quite the reverse. An unkind word would have chilled the relationship between Rosmer and Rebecca forever.

    Their innocence is lost following revelations of Beata’s death-knell communication with Kroll and Mortensgaard. Rosmer is appalled by what he calls “Beata’s horrible accusation”: the horrible imaginings of a diseased brain. (Was Beata really victim of a “woeful misunderstanding” or was she, like Rebecca, ennobled by Rosmersholm?)

    In __Act 3__
    A “wicked” Mrs. Kroll shares her doubts on Rosmer’s fidelity with sister-in-law Beata . Mrs. Helseth has reason to doubt Beata’s madness despite seeing months of her seemingly mad behaviour around Rosmer and Rebecca. Rosmer seeks that all be at one with each other in toleration, in love. To this end, did Beata sacrifice herself in the mill-race out of love for Rosmer, as Rosmer now believes? (Since Beata had “begged and entreated” Rebecca to come and live at Rosmersholm, did Beata seek her out as a fruitful wife for Rosmer?) Brother Kroll describes Beata’s relationship with Rebecca as idolatry, adoration – the same Kroll who once had a warm and exceedingly strong belief in Rebecca, despite his wife’s misgivings.

    During Beata’s last days Rebecca, troubled by conscience, threatens to flee Rosmersholm for Beata’s sake, a threat that likely induces Beata to act quickly. She contacts Kroll and Mortensgaard in support of Rosmer—and indirectly Rebecca—days before ending her life in the mill-race. (Is Beata concerned Rosmer’s wife-to-be may desert Rosmersholm, making the marriage she had long planned impossible? Did she act out that quiet innocence and joy so valued by the free-thinking Rosmer?)

    Rosmer and Rebecca, doubting Beata’s madness, reinterpret their behaviour toward her less favourably, confessing guilt though neither had “acted with cold and calculating composure”. Theirs were sins of omission. Both speak with admirable frankness of their interactions with Beata. Rebecca acted: “I let her infer that if she remained here any longer I could not tell what-what-might happen.”

    Beata must have known the moral sensibilities of Rosmersholm, and surrounds, are such that only her suicide through sustained madness could eventually bring about a fruitful union between Rosmer and Rebecca. Without insanity, neither they nor society would brook Rosmer’s remarriage. (Did a liberated, free-thinking Beata succeed in combining a freedom of thought and action that Rosmer, Rebecca and Brendel zealously sought but failed to realise?) Eighteen months after her suicide, Beata’s sacrifice was close to achieving its goal, and would have, were it not for the resentment of Kroll and Mortensgaard.

    All liberal pretensions are abandoned: Rosmer returns to his old ways and old friends, and Rebecca must rebuild her life elsewhere. But Rosmer still shuns the shortcut across the wooden bridge over the millrace: he shuns the way Beata went.

    I will now begin Act 4.


  10. In __Act 4__

    Tonight, Rebecca West is leaving for good, her will broken by Rosmersholm: crushed by a covert, wild and uncontrollable passion for John Rosmer. She has felt “a great self-denying love” in a soul at peace. Was Beata’s will similarly broken? Rosmer, in Act II recalls Beata’s “ungovernable, wild fits of passion” that she expected him to reciprocate. And brother Kroll “recalls a sort of desperate passion” in Beata.

    Rebecca describes her own passion for Rosmer as a northern storm at sea that swept poor unhappy Beata into the mill-race: “Yes—it was like a fight for life between Beata and me at that time.” How should we understand this? All along, Rebecca has understood Beata least of all: Beata who had begged Rebecca to come to Rosmersholm and suicided when she threatened to leave. Beata’s attitude towards Rebecca was, in the words of brother Kroll, little short of “idolatry—adoration”, even on the brink of suicide. Beata likely foresaw her death would enable Rosmer to find himself – or so Rosmer now thinks.

    As for Rebecca: “all the violent emotions that had been roused in me were quelled and silenced. A peace stole over my soul—a quiet like that of one of our mountain peaks up under the midnight sun.” Rosmer has transformed her but while “the Rosmer attitude towards life ennobles the soul…it kills joy.” No one laughs at Rosmersholm.

    Ulrik Brendel, like his one-time pupil Rosmer, is thoroughly disillusioned with his quest to ennoble others: “a deposed monarch standing over the ashes of my burnt-out palace.” He ask Rosmer to spare him “an ideal or two”. Brendel tells Rebecca that self-sacrifice is the only route to innocence – to the ideal: “the woman who loves [Rosmer] shall gladly go out into the kitchen and chop off her dainty, pink and white little finger—here, just at the middle joint”. Blessed Beata, with her ideals intact, did that and more! Rosmer had once said to Rebecca, “Happiness, dear Rebecca, means first and foremost the calm, joyous sense of innocence.”

    Rebecca asserts Rosmer has, at least, ennobled her but Rosmer wants proof, asking will she “have the heart to go Beata’s way”? He says, “You are not like Beata” with a distorted view of life. Rebecca, indeed, has the heart and vows to stifle Rosmer’s lingering doubts, balancing their accounts.

    Rebecca must “go overboard” and Rosmer vows to accompany her not only as far as the foot-bridge, but “out on to it, too”. In testimony to their “unfettered view of life”, Rosmer affirms: “the man shall cleave to his wife.” “In each other’s arms” as one, willingly and gladly, the man and wife follow Beata—the blessed one—“over into the mill-race”. The couple married just as Beata wanted it, just as she had once entreated Kroll. As Rosmer had prophesied: “Things can never be at an end between us two. You [Rebecca] shall never leave Rosmersholm.”

    The play ends with Mrs. Helseth’s, “The dead woman has taken them,” taken them the way Beata went. Freely and gladly, Beata had led the way and they, as one, followed her. If Beata had “a distorted view of life”, so had the dead couple. As Brendel observed, only the august, omnipotent “Peter Mortensgaard is capable of living his life without ideals”: never wanting to do more than he can!

    I seem to miss so much on a first reading of an Ibsen play that is ultimately fascinating. Having summarized happenings in the four acts of “Rosmersholm”, particularly as they relate to “the way Beata went”, I intend to ponder the play as a whole and, in particular, the opening post.


  11. Given the happenings in Acts 1-4 of “Rosmersholm”, what is the essence of the play?

    ___As in “Brand”, “The Wild Duck” and “The Master Builder”, innocence through integrity seems central. Innocence: the fount of joy and, oldly enough, passion. Yes, passion!

    ROSMER. You remember what I told you [Rebecca] of her [Beata’s] ungovernable, wild fits of passion–which she expected me to reciprocate.
    She terrified me! [p25]

    ROSMER. It must be so! It must! I cannot–I will not–go through life
    with a dead body on my back. Help me to throw it off, Rebecca; and then
    let us stifle all memories in our sense of freedom, in joy, in passion.
    You shall be to me the only wife I have ever had. [p38]

    ROSMER. Happiness, dear Rebecca, means first and foremost the calm, joyous
    sense of innocence. [p43]

    ___Brendel had long ago imparted this ideal to the young Rosmer. Even before Beata’s suicide, Rosmer and Rebecca seemed to be living out Brendel’s ideal – as Beata had surely intended.

    ROSMER. Love. Yes, dear, that is what I mean. Even while Beata was
    alive, it was you that I gave all my thoughts to. It was you alone I
    yearned for. It was with you that I experienced peaceful, joyful,
    passionless happiness. When we consider it rightly, Rebecca, our life
    together began like the sweet, mysterious love of two children for one
    another–free from desire or any thought of anything more. Did you not
    feel it in that way too? Tell me. [p44]

    ___Belated revelations from disgruntled Kroll and Mortensgaard, regarding Beata’s last days, expose a less-than-innocent naivety in Rosmer and Rebecca, shattering their hitherto joyous self-confidence.

    REBECCA. But is joy so absolutely indispensable to you, John?
    ROSMER. Joy? Yes, indeed it is.
    REBECCA. To you, who never laugh?
    ROSMER. Yes, in spite of that. Believe me, I have a great capacity
    for joy. [p45]

    REBECCA. Yes, innocence—which is at the root of all joy and happiness. [p61]

    ___The primacy of joy, brings to mind a key passage in Ibsen’s “Ghosts” where syphilitic Oswald speaks with his doting mother.

    OSWALD. …then I realised that my salvation lay in her [Regina],
    for I saw the joy of life in her!
    MRS. ALVING. (starting back) The joy of life–? Is there salvation in that?

    ___On leaving Rosmersholm forever, Brendel’s speaks ironically of salvation:

    BRENDEL. It is true, my boy–
    because Peter Mortensgaard [having the power of omnipotence] never
    wants to do more than he can. Peter Mortensgaard is capable of living
    his life without ideals. And that, believe me, is precisely the great secret
    of success in life. It sums up all the wisdom of the world. Basta!

    ROSMER (in a low voice). Now I see that you are going away from here
    poorer than you came. [p63]

    ___Poorer than you came! Mortensgaard’s mediocrity comes cheap. In “Rosmersholm”—as in “Brand”, “The Wild Duck” and “The Master Builder”—innocence comes at a cost, and that cost is self-sacrifice!

    BENDEL. Furthermore, that the aforesaid loving woman shall—also gladly—clip off her incomparably moulded left ear.

    ___The same sentiment echoes in Act I of “Brand”, as the young priest leads father and son across thin ice to comfort their dying daughter:

    PEASANT. I’d sign away
    my house and home, my every penny
    if she could pass away in peace!
    BRAND. But give your life, too, have that cease?

    ___The cost of integrity, of innocence, is high. Beata (the blessed one), Rosmer and Rebecca—like Brand, Agnes, Hedvig and Solness—freely choose innocence through the ultimate in self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice also plays out in “The Enemy of the People” and “A Doll’s House” but there the cost is less.

    ___I will now ponder the interpretation of “Rosmersholm” offered in the opening post, which I have deliberately ignored since I began my reread last November. I love Ibsen.


    • Thank you for this, Joydeck, I enjoyed reading this. Obviously, our views on this work differ, but there is, needless to say, no single, definitive way to interpret a work as complex as this, and fresh perspectives are always welcome.


  12. Ibsen plays never stop giving. As an afterthought on my last post, I now see a major parallel between “Rosmersholm” and “Ghosts”.

    In “Rosmersholm”, John Rosmer dispassionately does his duty. By contrast, Beata and Rebecca begin as creatures of passion, actively seeking out joy. As Rebecca bemoans:

    “The Rosmer attitude towards life ennobles…but it kills joy.”

    In “Ghosts”, Helene Alving dispassionately does her duty. By contrast, Captain Alving and his son Oswald begin as creatures of passion, actively seeking out joy. Mrs Alving’s attitude towards life seems blameless, like John Rosmer’s, but it kills joy.

    MRS. ALVING. (starting back) The joy of life–? Is there salvation in that?

    John Rosmer ultimately finds salvation, realising his “great capacity for
    through a tranquil love. Sadly for Mrs Alving, salvation has passed her by.
    There is more to life—more to love—than passionless duty.

    ROSMER. It was for love of me–in her own way that–she threw herself
    into the mill-race. That fact is certain, Rebecca.


  13. Posted by Phil O'Shea on May 11, 2019 at 8:04 am

    Thanks, I enjoyed your article. My wife and I have just seen the production of Rosmersholm at the Duke of Yorks theatre in London which is absolutely brilliant. Something we didn’t understand and perhaps you can help with, we understood the suspicion of incest between Rebecca and the late Dr West. But how were Rosmer and Dr West connected? We wondered if Rosmer was West’s son in which case, Rosmer and Rebecca’s relationship could be incest. If Rosmer wasn’t West’s son, how come Rosmer inherited the house? Feel free to email me at the email address I’ve entered below.


    • Hello Phil,

      I haven’t yet seen this recent production, but I certainly plan to. I’ve heard fine things about it.

      There is no connection between John Rosmer and Dr West. The house is Rosmersholm, the House of Rosmer: it has always been in the Rosmer family. The stage directions tell us that there are portraits hanging on the walls of John Rosmer’s forefathers. The past, and the values of the past, weigh down very heavily upon the present.

      Dr West belongs to Rebecca’s past, not Rosmer’s. Once Rebecca’s mother’s first husband had died, and she had become a widow, she and Dr West had married and lived together. And after Rebecca’s mother had died, Rebecca herself had become Dr West’s lover. Of course, it emerges later that Dr West and Rebecca’s mother had been lovers even before she had become a widow, thus making it possible that Dr West is Rebecca’s biological father.

      But all this had happened in the past, before Rebecca had entered Rosmer’s house as Beata’s companion. And, as Freud points out, in Rosmer’s house, Rebecca finds herself in a situation that parallels her earlier experience. Just as she had displaced her mother to get Dr West for herself, now she displaces Beata to get John Rosmer for herself. But, this time, she cannot take the final step: when Rosmer proposes marriage, she refuses. The reasons for her refusal are much discussed, and are not, I think, obvious.

      I find this a very complex, and an endlessly fascinating play. I’ve only seen it on stage once, back in the 1990s, in a production with Francesca Annis and Corin Redgrave. I very much look forward to seeing this.

      Best wishes,


  14. Six months on, I come to the interpretation of “Rosmersholm” offered in the opening post.

    In “Ghosts”, Pastor Manders had asked: “What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam!”

    As with Stockmann and Werle, [John Rosmer] believes in Truth for its own sake, and he believes, as Brand had done, that humans can be ennobled if they could but grasp the Truth, and hold it dear.

    But when it comes to human happiness, Truth is neutral.

    Not whether there exists such a thing as objective Truth, but whether we are capable, even with the best of wills, of grasping what it is.

    Objective truth is rather beside the point here. Ibsen had read Kierkegaard.

    “The truth is a trap: you cannot get it without it getting you; you cannot get the truth by capturing it, only by its capturing you. ― The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard

    For Beata, Brand, Agnes and Hedvig, subjective “truth” is to be lived, not merely grasped. Living the “Truth” is the monumental task that ultimately leads these four to die happy. So does Master Builder Solness, in his final moments, high on the church spire. And on the millrace bridge, Rosmer and Rebecca suicide in wedded bliss.

    We see a representative of the conservative camp – the overbearing and bullying Kroll; and we see a representative of the liberal camp, the sly and manipulative Mortensgaard, neither caring for the Truth, and neither bearing any mark of nobility.

    …when Rebecca refuses Rosmer…Rebecca feels guilt not because of incest, but because of Beata, the wife of John Rosmer, and the part she had played in Beata’s death.

    As you say, Rebecca refuses marriage because she has been ennobled by Rosmersholm. She has come to care for the Truth.

    But what really did happen with Beata?

    [Rosmer] has rejected his faith, but his moral integrity, his determination to do right, to value Truth, are important aspects of his character: these, after all, are the values of Rosmersholm itself.

    Rebecca and John can both see in Brendel an image of John Rosmer himself, and idealist who, being honest, must face up to what he really is, to the guilt in which he is embroiled.

    …would [Rebecca], who is guilty of so much for [Rosmer’s] sake, and in whose guilt he bears a great part, prove to him the depths not only of her love, but also of her awareness of her guilt?

    The liberated woman who had sought to subdue the world itself to her will, but whose will now has dissipated; and the man of integrity who had sought to ennoble humanity, but who finds himself embroiled in such guilt that, in absence of a God, he must himself punish, perish together. Night and darkness are best.

    Self-punishment is such a bland, pessimistic interpretation of the ending of “Rosmersholm”. For instance, the lately despairing Rosmer and Rebecca die gladly in each other’s arms—as one—happily united in blessed wedlock.

    Brand, Agnes, Solness and Hedvig equally welcome death and their motivation, like that of Rosmer and Rebecca, has more to do with a lived integrity than “guilty suicide”. Rather than Brendel’s “night and darkness”, all six Ibsen heroes shine—guilt free—in “full freedom of action”. In “Rosmersholm”, Rosmer and Rebecca die in happy innocence, prevailing where Brendel merely succumbs.

    MORTENSGAARD. Mr. Rosmer–you ought to remember that I, of all people,
    have not absolute freedom of action.
    ROSMER. Must you go now–in this dark night?
    BRENDEL. The dark night is best. Peace be with you!

    Aside from this, your fine opening post is entirely consistent with my interpretation. I merely embellish where you, as you admit, stop short. You feel the Ibsen plays, ending in death, are grim and should be understood in a straightforward way where surface meaning prevails. By contrast, I see Ibsen as the genius who embeds hope and salvation beneath a dark veneer.

    These plays, ending in death or suicide, testify to a lived integrity that places love and subjective truth above a pragmatic mediocrity bereft of ideals. Ulrik Brendel’s despair and Peter Mortensgaard’s capacity for “living his life without ideals” are not for Henrik Ibsen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: